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May 9, 2000 2:00 AM
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FESTIVALS: San Francisco Always Impresses

FESTIVALS: San Francisco Always Impresses

by Ray Pride



(indieWIRE/5.9.2000) -- This was the 43rd year for the San Francisco International Film Festival, the oldest film festival in the Americas. With fifteen days of features from around the world, with tributes, seminars, documentaries, short films, it's also one of the most-jam-packed. Assembled by the San Francisco Film Society under the guidance of Artistic Director Peter Scarlet, its curatorial zeal always impresses. While the mass fests have become bazaars of marketing, the San Francisco fest has an intimacy, for filmmakers, journalists and Bay Area moviegoers, that suits the alternately glittering and grubby city just fine.


The festival's star tribute, the Peter J. Owens Award, given each year to an actor whose work "exemplifies brilliance, independence and integrity" went to Winona Ryder, honored with a screening of "Age of Innocence" and a gala dinner. But there are other, more erudite and scholarly sides to SFIFF, such as the Akira Kurosawa Award, given for lifetime achievement by a director, offered, suitably, in 2000, to a great director who shares the same initials: AK, or Abbas Kiarostami. The 60-year-old master was on hand for tributes, interviews and conferences, along with several of his films, including his newest, the wondrous, minimalist "The Wind Will Carry Us."

There are features by new filmmakers (Jim McKay's second chicks-in-the-hood story, "Our Song"; the magical, exquisite paced Czech "Return of the Idiot"; Alison Maclean's loping "Jesus' Son" with a marvelous central shaggy-dog performance by Billy Crudup; Pablo Trapero's warm Argentine "Crane World"). There are also titles from past festivals and restorations, including several once-lost French thrillers such as a 1925 "Cyrano de Bergerac"; Jacques Becker's 1945 "Furbelows," probably the best film ever made about the fashion world"; and Werner Herzog's brilliant "Lessons of Darkness," a must-see portrait of the surreal landscapes of Kuwaiti oil in flame after the Gulf War. There are documentaries, animation and experimental film to spare, including a tribute to animator Faith Hubley.

A striking event at the immense, much-beloved local arthouse, the Castro, was an evening of battered prints of avant-garde chestnuts from the likes of Fernand Leger and Man Ray accompanied by guitar textures by Tom Verlaine (late of the band Television) and longtime collaborator Jimmy Ripp. It's engaging stuff, ear-filling abstractions, reminiscent at moments of the multi-guitared symphonies of Glenn Branca. Carl Dreyer's "They Caught the Ferry," a peculiar traffic safety film from the master who made "Ordet" and "Vampyr," is particularly suited to the approach, as the twin guitars surge, hesitate, soar, send Dreyer's spare images into another, stranger place.


The U.S. premiere of Volker Schlondorff's "The Three Legends of Rita Vogt" (Die still nach dem schuss) offers a shift back to the sorts of movies he made in Germany in the 1970s, often with his then-wife Margarethe von Trotta. The astonishing Bibiana Beglau, a stage actress in her first major film role, plays a West German terrorist who is secreted away by the East German secret police within their borders after several attacks go wrong. The script is dryly witty and as Rita, Beglau is luminous: the camera loves her. And that's a good thing, as she plays an unregenerate, unapologetic idealist who must bob atop the shifts in East German everyday life before the fall of the wall in 1989. The score is eclectic and moving, and the ending has cold power.


The sexually explicit South Korean power-games s&m fable, "Lies," almost didn't make it. A print from a festival in Buenos Aires somehow got shipped to New York, then Los Angeles, and the festival's print traffic manager flew to fetch the print on Easter Sunday, returning with the two seventy-pound cans as check-in luggage. Jang Sun-Woo's story of the power games between an underage high school girl and a 38-year-old married sculptor has a fierce conviction and as artist provocation, it's genially reprobate.

Noemie Lvovsky's "Life Doesn't Scare Me" (La vie ne me fait pas peur) is a lively pastiche out of left field, a chronicle of female adolescence through the rites of passage of four friends from about 15 to 17. Bold, trippy and often howlingly funny, this is the kind of tender, allusive, go-for-broke film that can shake up staid audiences. Working with Agnes Godard, Claire Denis' usual cinematographer, Lvovsky knows how to shoot anger, exhilaration, desire, and even despair.


The great artist Chris Marker reflections on his late friend, master filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky in "One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich." Marker describes Tarkovsky's themes and methods, using many clips, all in proper screen ratio. It's a rare tribute: a master cinephile accommodating the legend of another, departed filmmaker.


After the entertaining, if sometimes strained, men-must-honor-their-fathers whimsy and sentiment of the Chinese "Shower," the austere team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, I thought would surely deliver an austere rebuke. It's a shock to see a sold-out screening of a movie like this in any city. But "Sicilia!", their latest, may be the duo's most accessible. Derived from dialogues from a 1938 metaphorical novel by Elio Vittorini, which was banned by Mussolini, it's a powerful delight, with soaring language performed almost as arias.


While nonfiction film is an especially intent focus of the SIFF, the fest's Golden Gate Awards are a major event. The festival gathers juries of Bay Area media professionals in January to select winners of the Golden Gate Awards, a spirited attempt to bring further renown to documentary, experimental, animated and short films. Most festivals offer a few prizes for the small, non-feature fish, but SFIFF makes nods in almost two dozen categories. Notable among the fifty four winners in 2000 were Dan Reed's "The Valley," shot on the front lines of the Kosovo Civil War in 1998, mingling stark horror and starker beauty; and Peter Forgacs' "Angelos' Film," which weaves together the home movies and secret films of an Athenian businessman who clandestinely recorded Nazi atrocities against the Greeks. Like Lisa Lewenz' "A Letter Without Words," "Angelos' Film" reclaims what a previous generation has seen for posterity.


Elizabeth Barret's Sundance entry, "Stranger With A Camera," produced by Appalachian Film Workshop, takes the measure of the 1967 murder of a Canadian filmmaker in an impoverished Eastern Kentucky village, weaving in her own experiences of this local legend as a young girl who "grew up inundated with picture takers." For inanity from both sides of a question, there's a wealth of it in Thomas Balmes' colorful yet maddening "The Gospel According to the Papuans" (L'Evangile selon les Papous), charting the conversion of a Papua New Guinea tribe to Christianity. The tribe's elders are as daft as the missionaries, anxious to convert since the old gods "didn't bring us anything new." Harada Ippei's "Oz Mix" is an engaging renewal on music video, a five-minute scratch mix of Yasujiro Ozu's calm classic, "Tokyo Story."


Many of the movies in this year's edition are by women or about women: Lea Pool's priceless teenage coming of age of a filmmaker-to-be, "Set Me Free"; Kiron Kher's intense longing as a widow seduced by a visiting filmmaker in the Indian "Lady of the House" (Bariwali); and Claire Denis' unquestionable masterpiece, "Beau Travail." Heddy Honigman's haunting "Crazy," an international premiere, is a personal favorite, weaving interviews with nine Dutch veterans of U.N. peacekeeping missions in Korea, Lebanon, Vietnam, Cambodia and Bosnia. When the emotions grow overpowering, Honigman shifts to the interviewee listening to music that meant something to them during their tour of duty. I was overwhelmed.


Another U.S. premiere was from prolific, profligate young Japanese loon Kyoshi Kurosawa. His "Charisma, " an homage to Tarkovsky by way of "The X-Files" is a dream logic pastiche, tactile and gorgeous yet escaping coherence at every turn. Koji Yakusho from "Shall We Dance" stars as a Japanese cop who wanders into the woods after he's dismissed for failing to prevent a hostage killing, and discovers a magic, deadly tree that different figures want to preserve or destroy. It's a dark fantasy that ends on an apocalyptic note that mystifies and thrills: can the fate of a single tree leave all the cities of the earth in howling flames? (Yes.)

[Ray Pride is a contributing editor to FILMMAKER Magazine and longtime film critic for Chicago's Newcity. He writes about movies and the business for a range of other publications including Playboy Online and NERVE.com. He is also a screenwriter and filmmaker.]

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